Commentary

A primer for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off

Originally Published: November 16, 2011
By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

In the 2010 Puerto Rico Tip-Off, Minnesota -- not North Carolina or West Virginia -- shocked the field and won the tournament in San Juan.

Preseason All-American Harrison Barnes struggled as the Tar Heels fell to Minnesota and Vanderbilt. That tourney commenced a UNC skid that included four losses before Christmas. Barnes and Carolina didn't regain their footing until midway through the conference season.

[+] EnlargeTony Mitchell
AP Photo/Robert SuttonTo meet high expectations, Tony Mitchell and Bama have to get off to a better start than last season.

As for West Virginia, Bob Huggins' frustration with standout Casey Mitchell, who was suspended later that season, was obvious.

The tournament's 2011 installment possess similar potential to stagger squads with high expectations.

This should be Alabama's tournament.

The Crimson Tide return one of America's top trios in JaMychal Green, Tony Mitchell and Trevor Releford. They just missed the NCAA tournament last season, but excelled against their snubbed brethren on their way to the NIT championship game, which they lost to Wichita State.

The reigning NIT champion is one of three dangerous mid-majors in this year's Puerto Rico Tip-Off field. Iona and Western Michigan join the Shockers as under-the-radar programs that are capable of shaking up the tournament.

Purdue is the most intriguing squad with Robbie Hummel's return from back-to-back ACL injuries. Mark Turgeon is trying to instill his defensive principles with a shorthanded Maryland squad. Temple is shooting for an Atlantic 10 title, and an early tourney championship would be a good indicator for a squad that will rely on a deep, versatile backcourt this season. And Colorado is depleted with nothing to lose, so there's always a chance to catch a team that's looking ahead. Just ask Minnesota.

This is a respectable field, so there's plenty for Alabama to gain with a tourney title. But the Crimson Tide won't win the championship without a fight. Here are five questions I have before the Puerto Rico Tip-Off begins Thursday morning with Temple-Western Michigan (10:30 a.m. ET, ESPNU).

(Editor's Note: For a printable version of the Puerto Rico bracket, click here)

What does this tournament mean for the Alabama and the SEC?

The Kansas-Kentucky matchup at New York's Madison Square Garden on Tuesday resembled one of Mike Tyson's early title bouts. Things got vicious quick. Kentucky toyed with the Jayhawks, a team that's on a short list of Big 12 title contenders. The Wildcats certainly looked like the most talented team in America, and we'll find out if that's true Dec. 3, when North Carolina visits.

Meanwhile, two SEC contenders have revealed their vulnerabilities in the season's first full week. Florida put up a fight against Ohio State on Tuesday, but concerns about the Gators' size and inside presence remain. Vanderbilt lost to Cleveland State Sunday and plummeted in the national polls.

With a championship in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, Alabama would make a statement about its program and conference. The Crimson Tide lost six of their first 11 games last season. A late run that resulted in 12 conference victories wasn't enough for a tourney bid. Bama is trying to avoid a similar scenario this time around. A title here would be a sign that it's building off last season's finish and not reliving its sluggish beginning.

Confidence in the SEC continues to fall, despite Kentucky's success. Some hardware for the Tide in Puerto Rico wouldn't hurt.

Is Robbie Hummel back both physically and mentally?

We'll see. I covered Hummel's last Big Ten game of the 2009-10 season. After landing awkwardly during a routine play, the versatile forward sat on the floor as trainers rushed toward him. It was sad to see a player with that potential lose the rest of his season to a torn ACL, especially with Purdue's Final Four potential that year. And then, it happened again before the start of last season. Unimaginable.

[+] EnlargeRobbie Hummel
AP Photo/Michael ConroyRobbie Hummel has shown no signs of struggle in his return.

The Puerto Rico Tip-off is a chance for Hummel to build up his confidence. He's played two games since February 2010. Back then, he had help from premier players E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson. This season, he's the undisputed star charged with carrying a heavy load for the Boilermakers. In the team's first two games, he proved that he's as capable of leading the Boilers as he was before his injuries.

He averaged 19.5 points in the team's first two games, both victories. He's 8-for-14 from beyond the arc. He looks like the same versatile player who used to cause matchup problems for opponents. Johnson and Moore were All-American good. Hummel, however, was arguably the top player in that trio.

In Puerto Rico, Hummel will play three games in four days. He needs this. Purdue needs this. The competition and pace will help mold the Boilermakers as they adjust to life without Moore and Johnson and the re-entry of Hummel. The latter will have the opportunity to prove that he has regained his mojo, mentally and physically.

Who are the other players to watch?

Michael Glover (Iona): Glover collected 21 double-doubles last season and averaged 18.4 ppg and 10.1 rpg. In last year's Puerto Rico Tip-Off, Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe earned MVP honors following a two-year stretch away from Division I basketball. Glover could emerge in this year's event, especially if he has a big game against the Boilermakers in the first round.

Juan Fernandez (Temple): The Owls' starting point guard scored 19 points during an overtime win over Penn in Temple's season opener. Fernandez played through a knee injury last season and watched his numbers drop after a stellar sophomore campaign. He's the key to Temple's A-10 championship hopes. Lavoy Allen is gone. And backcourt mate Scootie Randall is still recovering from a torn meniscus. With all of the change, Fernandez has to be a steadying force for the Owls.

JaMychal Green (Alabama): The senior star led the Crimson Tide with 18 points in a season-opening victory over Summit League contender Oakland. A hyperextended elbow isn't expected to affect him in Puerto Rico. Green is the best player in the field, but without a tournament title, it won't matter. He has been his own worst enemy and was suspended during Alabama's rough start last season. It's not about points and rebounds for Green. He has to answer the critics who question his ability to lead this talented roster. A solid showing in Puerto Rico would be a great way for Green and the Crimson Tide to kick off the season and fulfill their potential.

Terrell Stoglin (Maryland): Turgeon's first year at Maryland could be a rough one. But his 2012 recruiting class is nationally ranked. In the meantime, he has Stoglin, a talented guard who showed promise as a freshman last season. His biggest problems were his turnovers (2.3 per game). In the season opener, a win over UNC-Wilmington, Stoglin scored 22 points but committed three turnovers. This is not the team Maryland fans anticipated. Jordan Williams went pro. Three recruits decommitted after Turgeon was hired. But Stoglin remains. And the Terrapins are going to need him in Puerto Rico and beyond.

Is this a showcase for the mid-majors?

Absolutely. The Puerto Rico Tip-Off features three of them worth tracking this season. Iona is a mid-major gem with Glover, Scott Machado (7.6 apg) and Lamont "Momo" Jones, a transfer from Arizona. The Gaels were a MAAC contender without Jones. His addition -- the NCAA granted Jones a hardship waiver last month -- enhances their chances of winning that league and making noise in March. But they might not have to wait that long to show up on the national radar. The Gaels face Purdue in the first round in San Juan.

[+] EnlargeDavid Kyles
AP Photo/Eugene TannerDavid Kyles and WSU were in Maui at this time last year. Now it's Puerto Rico for the Shockers.

Meanwhile, Wichita State should give Creighton hell in the race for the Missouri Valley title. The Shockers won last season's NIT crown, but the seniors who anchored that squad and accrued nearly 30 points per game are gone. Wichita didn't bring back one player who averaged double figures a year ago, but its experience, especially in a tournament setting, could be an advantage. David Kyles scored 19 points for the Shockers in their season-opening victory over Charleston Southern. WSU will need that output from Kyles to have a chance to win the tournament. The team will face Alabama in a rematch of last season's NIT championship if it gets past Colorado.

Western Michigan isn't considered as good as those other two, but it is the favorite in the MAC's West division. The Broncos lost to South Dakota State in their opener, but center Matt Stainbrook scored a career-high 32 points. All five starters from WMU's run to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament have returned. A win over Temple in the first round would help the Broncos forget about the SDS loss and move forward.

What's the best matchup in the first round?

I love Iona against Purdue on Thursday afternoon. Both squads enter this game with so much to prove. The Boilermakers lost a lot of star power from last season's team. But their rugged defense and Hummel's return could be enough to help them climb the Big Ten standings and get back to the NCAA tournament. The Puerto Rico Tip-Off could be the impetus for that. Iona is one of the most talented mid-majors in the country. Don't count the Gaels out in this tournament. Glover is a force, and they have a strong backcourt. Thursday's matchup between Purdue and Iona should be a battle.

My predictions:

Round 1
Temple 76, Western Michigan 63
Purdue 68, Iona 64
Alabama 69, Maryland 60
Wichita State 70, Colorado 59

Round 2 (winner's bracket)
Temple 66, Purdue 63
Alabama 64, Wichita State 57

Championship game
Alabama 71, Temple 68

Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mmedcalf3030@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN